Morrissey – Low in High School

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"His voice is untarnished by time; his band are coming up with experimental textures to keep things interesting; it sounds slick."

Three years on from the flatulent World Peace Is None of Your Business, Morrissey offers us romance, cynicism and quite a lot of oral sex on this, his eleventh studio album. I’d be a liar to pretend it even begins to hold a candle to the best of his material – this is certainly no Vauxhall and I. However, for the first time in a long time, it’ll more than do.

As well you can likely imagine, much of the press preceding this record was negative – and for all the right reasons. Between misbehaving on the roads of Italy and condemning the results of the UKIP leadership election, Morrissey did himself absolutely no favours, despite finally having a record label promoting in the preferred way – 7” singles and radio play. His BBC 6 Music live session – recorded in early October – presented us with a mixed bag; a spattering of new songs, some very exciting… others less so… oh, and all of the political banter was mindless.

Gratifyingly, in the face of polarising reviews that have both trashed and praised this album, it is (to these once-devoted ears, at least) actually quite good. My Love I’d Do Anything for You opens proceedings with huge, swaggering bombasticity, a simple but bold sentiment magic-markered on its bullish forehead: “society’s hell – you need me just like I need you.” With an atonal guitar solo and galloping, riff-laden rhythm rarely experienced in the Morrissey canon, it’s a fun opener. Elsewhere, the cream of the crop includes the recent single Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s up on the Stage – a snarky, glam-rock commentary on eyebrow-raising talent (or lack thereof) – and the twinkling Home Is a Question Mark, a title dating back to the You Are the Quarry sessions, and whose sparse third verse provides a fragile breakdown that may just constitute the album’s finest moment: “Home,” sings Morrissey; “is it just a word? Or is it something you carry within you – I’m happy just to be here.” He sounds old, sentimental and for once, enormously genuine. It’s a fantastically produced moment – very raw, wavering almost, and for a second, his emotional nomadism is almost heartbreaking.

These are, if you will, the traditional ‘good Morrissey songs’ on this record. Arguably more exciting, are the insane curveballs that actually pay off. It’s utterly unexpected, but Who Will Protect Us from the Police? is a throbbing electronic stomper, underpinned by contagious melodies and blessed with a chorus whose sad chord progression betrays the flawed optimism of its lyric, a proposed answer to the titular question –  “maybe God will.” In Your Lap is another surprise; a beautiful Pandolfi-esque piano-led torch song, melancholically ruminating on the devastating politics of the modern world, and then u-turning in the final line of each verse to reveal the true narrative desire – cunnilingus perhaps; fellatio maybe; world peace? No, actually. The flamenco-inspired When You Open Your Legs completes the crotch-chomp trilogy (Home… features a line about ‘wrapping [one’s] legs around [one’s] face’) with a sterling vocal line, and latinate-copyist flourishes straight out of the White Stripes Conquest (minus Jack White’s face-melting, and far superior handle on tone).

The rest of the album is serviceable, but flawed. I Bury the Living makes good use of its epic seven minute runtime (unlike World Peace’s ghastly I Am a Man, with its two minutes of horseshit musique concrète intro), but the lyric – though effacing and blunt – is clunky and overly simple, despite aid from a grand two-part instrumental, whose airy guitars, pounding rhythm section and light, ballady end almost save it. Similarly fated, is the optimistic All the Young People Must Fall in Love, which sounds neutered here and lacking of the dancey looseness its live performance promised. I Wish You Lonely suffers similarly from a non-event lyric slapped onto routinely good music and on Israel, though gorgeously intoned by a man who can (love him or hate him) still really sing, the sentiment is politically difficult – noble perhaps, at heart, Morrissey attempts on this song, to divorce the Israeli people from the plight of governments at war, but comes across as try-harding with on-the-nose description (“they who rain abuse upon you are jealous of you as well”). Not dis similarly, The Girl from Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel (despite borrowing its title from a play) is punishingly obvious – it’s all there in its title; you needn’t even listen.

Most surprising of all (thankfully) is the fact that Spent the Day in bed is singularly the worst moment on this whole record. Fortunately, we’ve had ages to get bored of its lazy, ignorant assertions and balderdash Balamory buoyancy – not to mention its video, which, in allowing a career opportunity for the rightfully disgraced footballer Joey Barton – is a total fucking travesty and no less.

And so, another well-produced, not-too-bad Morrissey album lands less than graciously at our feet. It’s quite clunky for a good quarter of its run; has been subject to the indelicate marketing kamikaze tactics of its own apparently shameless maker; and is unnecessarily provocative to behold, with its violent ‘axe the monarchy’ laden sleeve art (I’m no fan of them either, Steven, but the sentiment bears no relevance on this record, anywhere at all.) It’s also strangely obsessed with the grisly tongue-tickling of that which lingers betwixt your legs – undoubtedly its oddest quality. However, it’s good for eight songs out of twelve, all of which are sometimes-funny, sometimes-sad, but always Morrissey. His voice is untarnished by time; his band are coming up with experimental textures to keep things interesting; it sounds slick. It is, essentially, what it is – and what it is, is not that bad.

Picks: Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage, Home Is a Question Mark, Who Will Protect Us from the Police?, In Your Lap
Rating: 3.5/5